Being THAT reviewer

Last week, my supervisor popped by in the lab and told me he had been asked to review a manuscript, but didn’t have time to do it. Whether I would like to review it. Naturally, I said yes. To please him, because he’ll have to write substantial amounts of recommendation letters before I’ll reach the stage where I can do without him… Also, because I felt like it was some kind of test, to see whether I’m up to it; I still feel like I have to prove myself here somehow. Apart from that, I accepted because I think it’s a good way to learn. I give him my comments and write a draft review, he adjusts this as he sees fit and sends this also to me. Might be a good experience before trying to really review stuff signed by me and not my boss.

Which brings me to the point of this post: how do I get to the stage where I get to review things? As much as I like doing my bosses work without getting credit for it, of course I would like to advance, do the same work and be able to list it as super major (not) thing on my CV. Do I sit back and wait for the journals to find me? Do I join some kind of “I am not an overwhelmed PI yet and can do some free reviewing for you in a reasonable timeframe”-database? Or is this something only PIs are invited to, although they mostly don’t have the time for it anyway?

I really would like to review stuff, for multiple reasons. I’d get things to read that might be slightly outside of my usual scope (or so I hope..), meaning I’d have to read up on some unfamiliar topics. Which I mostly only do if I have a reason for it, like needing to have an opinion. Being forced to come out of my comfort zone every now and then would be good. Also, thinking critically about experiments someone else did, keeps one alert. After commenting on wrong controls or missing statistics, you would be particularly fluff-brained if you’d make the same mistake yourself. And finally, stupid reason… Every now and then, I simply miss the pressure I had during the last stages of my PhD work, reading, writing, reviewing my thesis and articles. I like to have a reason to spend an evening reading every now and then 🙂 Crazy huh?

So yeah, if anyone knows how one gets to be *chosen* as reviewer, let me know!!


Dealing with reviewer comments on literature reviews

I’d like to share a lesson with you, which I had rather learned sooner…

About a year ago, we sent a proposal for a review to a dedicated review journal, just to see whether they maybe were interested. If not, we’d try again with some less fancy journal. I was writing the introduction for my PhD thesis and found it a bit of a waste not to try to turn it into some review that more people would read than my thesis. Guess what? They wanted it.

I sat down to write the review. And had a lot of fun while doing so. Critically reading literature makes me aware of gaps in our knowledge, of inconsistencies, provides a lot of input for future research really. Two of my colleagues joined in and wrote bits and pieces, which I then put together to make a cohesive story. It went back and forth a bit between us and the editor, to make sure we were saying exactly what we wanted to say. I guess they put in an extra bit of effort because none of us is a native English speaker.

It was then sent to three reviewers, of which two had some minor comments, the third one wanted to see some bigger changes. Blinded as we were by happiness that we were getting our review into this journal, we tried to accommodate all three reviewers. There was one point where I disagreed with reviewer #3 and I went as far as to send an email to the corresponding author of the paper we should discuss in a different light according to the reviewer. This author took a somewhat middle course, agreeing with neither of us.

We decided to make a compromise and include the data the reviewer wanted to see, while adding sentences like “according to the model proposed in paper X, …., however more research is needed to confirm this theory”. Thus we added what the reviewer wanted while making clear we aren’t a 100% sure yet whether the model is right. To this date, I’m still convinced the model isn’t right, so I kept doubting whether it was right to add it at all. But hey – the review was published, so everything seemed fine.

Then, at a specialized meeting, one of the speakers totally unexpected showed an experiment that contradicts said model. He also added that he “thinks the model can’t be true, even though it was described already in a recent review”. At that moment, I started thinking along the lines of  “yeah, I also disagree, but, the reviewer, …”

And then I realized: when I publish something with my name on it, it’s my name on it and not the reviewers… Which means that in future works, whenever I have good reason to disagree with reviewers, I will certainly do so. In the end, people who read my writing will assume they read my opinion. Rightly so. I’m only semi-distressed about this example, because we did add some note of caution every time we mentioned the model, but still I would do it differently if I could do it again! Maybe I can prevent others making the same mistake, which is why I’m sharing this little anecdote on here 🙂

Why we don’t publish open access only

To get things straight: I am a HUGE fan of open access. Society pays for our research, benefits from it in the long run and should have access to it. Those who live in poor countries and are struggling to set up some solid research should have access. I hate it when I’m at home and can’t read things. Open access is what we want.

We, scientists, work a lot to generate enough data to publish something, to prove our hypothesis right or wrong. We write the actual paper. Make figures. We review papers when asked. We edit. We do everything. I don’t see why journals should be making money over our backs. I’m all for open access.

However but unfortunately.

Our institute calculates how much bonus funds each research group will receive based on the cumulative IF of the journals they published articles in last year. Very easy, certain amount of money times the IF et voila. If we can get something into Nature instead of PLoS Biology, we will, because we get roughly three times as much money for it! You can read posts from a year or so ago, if you want to know how bad the financial situation in our lab currently is. We can’t afford much as is – of course we want these bonus funds!

I don’t have a degree from Harvard. My university isn’t even in the Top 100. The name of my doctoral adviser isn’t *insert your favorite big name here*. I’m the first academic in my family, none of my friends are. I’m not gonna land any job because of my non-exist old boys network. Looks like it’ll be down to my excellent track record then. I had my share of luck in combination with lots of hard work during my PhD project and think I may be able to make it in academia. Who, apart from Michael Eisen, would not value a Science/Nature/Cell publication on an applicants record, besides the PLoS Ones? There’s no way I’m gonna make it without either BIG university, BIG supervisor or BIG publication on my CV.

I try to silence my conscience by uploading everything onto ResearchGate. People who really want an article only need to Google to have access to it – or send the corresponding author an email for that matter. In meantime, let the Games continue. Once I’m a prof with a never-ending contract, funds flowing like water and excellent facilities surrounding me, then I won’t even bother trying to get something into a glamor mag. People know me and my reputation and value my science instead of the journal it’s published in. And you know, even then I will consider what is best for the students whose further lives depend on their track record – maybe I’ll publish some glam stuff even then.

[PS – thanks to Dr.Isis who triggered this post with an innocent question on Twitter that quickly turned into an *interesting* debate…]